By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
McKEE, Ky. – After making and selling strawberry jam the past three years, FFA and Family & Consumer Science (FACS) students at Jackson County High School are beginning to produce a pair of value-added products using apples.
Agriculture teacher Doug Wilson received approval in mid-March for an apple butter recipe following testing by the foods lab at the University of Kentucky Food Systems Innovation Center. At the end of March, Jackson County students hope to begin filling 300 9-ounce glass jars with apple butter and another 300 jars with apple jelly to sell this spring.
"It's a fund-raiser and an educational opportunity at the same time," Wilson said.
The students produced their first batch of strawberry jam in 2011 and sold all 800 9-ounce jars. They are in the process of selling 1,000 jars from their second batch.
"The jam worked out so well that we want to do something each quarter, so we ordered an extra case of apples with the citrus [an annual fund-raiser] at Christmastime," Wilson said. "We have a student whose family grows grapes, so we're thinking about doing grape jelly and salsa."
The strawberries came from Florida and the apples from Michigan, but Wilson plans for the grapes and tomatoes in the salsa to be Kentucky grown.
Jackson County's FFA and FACS are members of Kentucky Proud. The high school in McKee became the first school in the state to sign up to be a member of the new Appalachia Proud marketing program when it was unveiled in February in Knott County. The school had a booth at the event displaying jars of its jam.
The jam is called Jammin' with the Generals, which is Jackson County High School's mascot. The product, which sells for $4 per jar, was the result of a brainstorming session by students, who established a marketing plan, calculated the cost of production, determined a profit margin, and developed sales strategies. Students also designed the label, adorned with the Kentucky Proud logo.
"Having the Kentucky Proud logo shows that the products are locally produced and processed and that they are of the highest quality," Wilson said.
The students produce their value-added strawberry and apple products at the Jackson County Regional Food Center, a certified commercial kitchen in nearby Annville, Ky. The students also made apple sauce in the kitchen as part of a Farm to School grant that helped fund the projects.
"We want to do something each quarter because we've got this kitchen," Wilson said. "If we don't train the kids to utilize this facility, we could lose it. If we train them, the better the chance they'll use it as an adult. Their grandparents are not going to go over there and produce anything commercially."
Reached in mid-March, Wilson said the students were on their way to making apple butter and jelly.
"The students have already peeled and cored apples, and placed them in jars," he explained. "Then we took the cores and peels and cooked the juice out of them to make the jelly. Instead of just throwing the peels and cores away, we boiled them and ran them through a strainer to extract every bit of juice.
"They thought that was the coolest thing. It showed them how to produce value-added products by utilizing the whole apple."
Wilson even had an idea to take the production process one step further.
"I told them if they could take those cores and peels, press them into a brick and dry it out, you could probably sell it to horse farms," he said. "Horses would absolutely go crazy over that."
The students plan to sell their apple butter and jelly at local grocery stores. They are currently building small shelves that resemble barns to display the products in the stores.
Jackson County's FACS and FFA teachers, Heather Smith and Wilson, have a combined 45 years of teaching experience. Wilson is in his 24th year, Smith in her 21st.
Both are third-generation educators. Wilson's mother, Judy, was a home economics teacher at Jackson County who also taught night classes at Eastern Kentucky University.
Jammin' with the Generals has been featured on Lexington's WKYT-TV and in USA Today,The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, and a book by Dayna Laur titled "Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real-World Approach to Project-Based Learning."
The local cable television station produced a DVD titled "Local Treasures," which filmed the entire process of the students making their strawberry jam. The episode aired earlier this month.
"It's been a shot in the arm for me," Wilson said. "After all these years teaching production agriculture, now I'm transferring into ag processing because I don't have that many production kids in class anymore."
The Jackson County Regional Food Center provides facilties and guidance for local food producers. Read more by clicking here.